MEDFORD BOYS HOCKEY PREVIEW - Raiders expect solid defense, look to fill the scoring gap
MEDFORD BOYS HOCKEY PREVIEW
The titles have changed, but the faces are still quite familiar at Medford’s hockey practices, leading to a smooth transition so far at the start of the Klayton Kree coaching era.
Kree took over the program in the summer when Galen Searles stepped down after four seasons as head coach, handing things over to Kree, who held an assistant position last winter. Searles has still been helping out at practices. Meanwhile, Connor Gowey has immediately transitioned from finishing last year as the program’s career leader in goals to sharing his knowledge as Kree’s assistant.
The team itself brings back 11 letter winners from last year’s 7-16 club who look to bring the Raiders one step closer to competing with their rivals in the Great Northern Conference and add some wins against a competitive nonconference list of teams as well.
“It’s been really good,” Kree said Friday before the team wrapped up its second week of practices. “It’s been a pretty much seamless transition. Galen has been helping out at most practices. It’s super awesome. The kids are taking to me. We have Connor helping out. It’s been really smooth. They’re listening and we have some guys who are stepping up and saying stuff too.”
The Raiders opened their season Tuesday with a non-conference game at Marshfield, a game that was played after this week’s early holiday deadline for The Star News. Things pick up next week when Medford hosts the Stevens Point Pacelli Co-op in the 7 p.m. home opener on Tuesday, begins GNC play Nov. 30 at Antigo and then hosts the Viroqua Co-op in non-conference play Saturday, Dec. 2 at 4 p.m.
Medford got a taste of game action on Nov. 14 when it hosted scrimmage sessions with Ashland and Hayward. The Raiders got better as the Ashland session progressed, ending the 25-minute period at a goal apiece. Things weren’t quite as sharp against Hayward but, like any good scrimmage, the night showed some positives and showed where Medford needs work.
“In the first one we played Ashland, we started off shaky,” Kree said. “I don’t know if it was just jitters or nervousness. They were in our zone for quite awhile. It took us a little bit to get the breakout going. Once we started to get our feet moving and our passing going, we had a couple of really good breakouts.
“It was very valuable getting to face other opponents rather than ourselves,” he added. “Hayward is a good team. They played us really well. I don’t know if we were tired or just kinda lost. We just seemed to lose focus and a lot of mental breakdowns on positioning.”
With Gowey now on the bench instead of the ice, Medford enters the season with question marks as to how to replace his offensive production and the production from his graduated linemate Miles Searles. Those two combined for 61 of Medford’s 89 goals and had 31 assists last year.
Kree said the solution has several layers to it. Obviously players now with an additional year of experience need to step up, the Raiders also have some defensemen capable of chipping in and forechecking and passing effort all can lead to more goals.
To start the year, the team’s top offensive line will consist of sophomore center Tucker Phillips, who will be flanked by senior Kaden Kennedy and freshman Jacob Doyle. Phillips ranked third on last year’s team in goals with 10.
Lines two and three are still being tinkered with, but senior Noah Machon, junior Logan Koski and sophomores Cole Pernsteiner and Mason Harris also bring forward experience.
“We’re definitely going to need some more consistent play throughout the rest of the team rather than having to rely on two guys only,” Kree said. “I think we’re going to see production throughout the board. I talk a lot about forechecking hard. You have to win the little battles in the corners if you’re going to have a chance at scoring. Once you win the little battles in the corners, we’ve been working on cycling and moving the puck, trying to find the open space because a lot of times last year we relied on Miles and Connor to skate the puck around and we had two guys standing in front of the net. Sticks were on the ice, which was good, but they were just standing there waiting for them to make a play.” Kree was encouraged by some of the puck cycling he saw in the scrimmages, particularly in the session with Ashland. “What I’m trying to get them to realize is you need to find the open space and create open space for passing,” Kree said. “If someone has the puck over on boards or in the corner, you need to support him. We preach a 2-12, two on the boards down low, one guy mid and then you have your two D up high. Having two forwards low supporting each other, you can pass the puck with your forwards and then you have the guys up high, your defense to pass to, cycle around. It’s actually playing hockey rather than watching. We’ve done a lot of cycling in practices and a lot of the guys are talking to each other and we’re starting to get some some communication out on the ice, which is most important. I think we saw it in the scrimmages a couple of times in the offensive zone. That’s when we had successful plays.”
Newcomers at forward include junior Tucyr Smola and freshmen Fischer Thums and Cade Wellman. Wellman made some things happen in the scrimmage with Ashland, including putting a hard one-timer right on goal.
“I’m not ever going to complain about a play like that or a shot like that. Eventually they fall,” Kree said.
Kree views his defensive crew as a strength on this year’s team. That’s led by seniors Cameron Bull and Isaac Schaefer. Both are physical presences who won’t back down, plus both have offensive ability, as does sophomore Gavin Phillips. Bull and Schaefer had five goals apiece last year and Philips had seven assists. Shane Kiselicka returns after a solid freshman season in Medford’s defensive rotation. “What I’m really looking forward to this year is our defensive skating ability,” Kree said. “Our defense is probably one of our stronger areas in the aspect in that after they get the puck and get a turnover, they can fly up ice. Cameron has great skating ability and puck handling ability, Isaac has the same speed and he can really rip a shot. He loves his little slap shot. Gavin likes to skate it up too. We just have to hone in his puckhandling ability. Shane is a strong defender too. He keeps good position.”
Junior Talan Albers returns for his second season as Medford’s top goaltender. As one would expect with a young goalie, Albers had some ups and downs, but his improvement was evident as the season progressed. He finished with an 81.5% save percentage. Doyle would be his back-up if needed.
“He’s got a good glove right now,” Kree said. “Sometimes he relies a little too much on it, but his positioning seems to be getting better. We’re working on rebound control. He’s getting there. Every practice I’m telling him to treat it like live game action and cover that puck up. As soon as you get a chance cover that puck up. That way it’s just instinct, get on top that puck.”
Medford went 1-9 in GNC games a year ago, knocking off Waupaca early in the year. The league again featured some tremendous teams like Rhinelander and Lakeland and even Tomahawk was much improved, going 7-3 in league play and 18-6 overall. Mosinee won the GNC title at 9-1 and went 21-7 overall, finishing its season at the WIAA Division 2 state tournament.
Kree said more than wins and losses he hopes to instill a belief in the team that it can compete with these programs, although the Raiders again won’t be blessed with a lot of depth, featuring 14 skaters plus Albers in net. In non-conference play, Medford will see many familiar opponents like the Chequamegon Co-op, the Burnett Blizzard Co-op and the Shawano Co-op. The Raiders will again play in the Merrill Co-op’s tournament Jan. 12-13 with Rhinelander and Jeffers, Mich.
“I’m a firm believer that we should not be losing by double digits to any team unless they’re a state team like Mosinee was last year,” Kree said. “But I’m still never happy with that. When I played, I hated it. When I coach or watch, I hate it. We’re not a team that should be losing that much. That’s what I want, to compete in every game. It doesn’t matter who we play. It doesn’t matter what the score is. I want to compete and show that we can play three periods of full hockey rather than just maybe one period.”